On Feb. 9, a unique event occurred in Harpers Ferry. The word “unique” is overused, but in this instance, no other event like this one had ever happened at St. John Lutheran Church.
Vicar John Unger of St. John became Pastor John Unger, in the process known as ordination. As Lutheran Bishop Ralph Dunkin said, “This day may be a foretaste of heaven.”
Bishop Dunkin was the celebrant at the service and Methodist District Supervisor Terri Rae Chattin was the Bishop’s Chaplain and co-celebrant. The church was packed and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin led the congregation, sitting near the front with the priests, pastors and ministers who came to be present with John, who is also West Virginia Sen. John Unger, and the majority leader in that body.
However, Bishop Dunkin was not referring to the ranks and positions of the various guests when he said that the event was a foretaste of heaven, and the body to which he referred was the Body of Christ. What I think he meant was that the congregation of worshippers was there to give glory to God, without any regard for what denomination they were. Bishop Dunkin believes that is the way things will be in heaven. There were Lutherans and Methodists, of course: John was educated both at Gettysburg Seminary and at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. But there were also Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Disciples of Christ, and Baptists. There were people of Asian, African and European heritage present. When Bishop Dunkin laid his hands on John’s head to ordain him, John disappeared – he was so completely surrounded by other clergy, laying their hands on his back and arms that he seemed to vanish.
One sidenote: as I stood next to John and laid a hand on his arm I saw that, in addition to his bishop, one pastor had reached to the only space that was still available, and put his hand on the back of John’s head, below the Bishop’s encircling hands. That hand was a deep brown. I couldn’t even see which person it was attached to, because so many people surrounded John to ordain and bless. It struck me as very appropriate, because, of all the senators and delegates I have seen hold office in the Eastern Panhandle in the past 37 years, John Unger has reached out consistently to the African-American community, considered its needs, and respected its hard work to gain legal, housing and educational equality. There was a sense of appropriateness in that moment, in Black History month, and in a church that saw so much Civil War history.
When the clergy returned to their pews, a new John Unger was revealed. He seemed to shine with joy, and his smile reached from the Shenandoah to the Potomac. He was now officially the pastor of the flock he has served for three years. The service itself, with wonderful music, was an occasion of joyous worship, not just an assemblage of prominent and not-so-prominent personalities. The people of St. John Lutheran welcomed their guests with joy and deep hospitality. It was a wonderful day; I hope John was feeling that it was a mountaintop experience. I was tempted to call it a glorious moment, but then I remembered the Sunday scriptures I was using to write a sermon.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, Moses and Elijah are at the mountaintop, so engaged with the Living God that their faces are illumined. When such connections with the Divine happen in the Bible, those who write about it use the word “glory.”
Glory is not a restaurant or a song or a worship service or even military victory, although the word has been used in connection with all of those things. Glory is the privilege of connecting with the living God, a radiant moment.
We say that it transfigures, or entirely changes, those who participate in it. No one is literally transfigured in ordination, but as Bishop Dunkin suggested, that moment is a foretaste of heaven, both for those who experience it, and for those who are faithful witnesses to the commitment to God that the ordained person makes. Our job as Christians is to not put glorious moments in boxes or in booths or shelters (as Peter proposes to Jesus when he comes down from the summit). Glory cannot be contained, and it can only be sustained by God, not by human plans.
As we continue the 40 days of remembrance before Christians celebrate the Resurrection, we strip down to the essentials, spiritually, after completing the shining season of Epiphany following the celebration of the birth of Jesus. We may give something up that we know is not helpful in our lives—sweets, gossip, snarky responses to our mates, etc.
Many Orthodox Christians give up any form of animal protein in the season they refer to as Great Lent. Many Christians also choose some form of spiritual discipline, such as daily Bible reading, a period of seeking God in silence, or a daily prayer practice such as the Rosary, or the Prayer of the Heart.
Adding a discipline does not mean punishing yourself. It means deepening your life as a student (disciple). It is a good thing to undertake, unless you have learned all you need to know spiritually — and if you think you have, beware.
The prophet Isaiah suggests to the Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, that fasting is more than giving something up, however. It is to take on the healing of the broken world.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them … Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard … The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.” [Isaiah, Ch. 58]
However you may choose to observe a Holy Lent, may your journey be one of preparation, of the sharing of the blessings God has given you and of a sense of healing of old sorrows and struggles and the opening of new spiritual paths. Remember to pray for new Pastor John Unger and for the congregation he serves.
Peace be with you.
— The Rev. Georgia C. DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry and St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Leetown.